Wednesday, January 28, 2015

"Leviathan" is a stunning look at local corruption in Russia, all filmed on location in a bleak, alien-looking Arctic environment

Travel to Russia is less practical now for many people (especially LGBT) now than it used to be, largely because of the political situation and Vladimir Putin’s behavior, but the expansive film “Leviathan” (or “Leviafan”), directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, filmed on location on the Murmansk Oblast, offers, in wide screen, a stunning look at the northwest corner of Russia, along the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean, mostly in Summer.  The province borders Finland, an area politically contested early in World War II (the film “Ambush”, by Olli Saarela, which I saw in 1999 at the University of Minnesota) and possibly at future risk today under Putin.  I saw the film on the large curved screen (full Cinemascope) at the old Avalon Theater in Washington DC.  I wasn’t aware that the area is as rugged as it looks.  Among the cliffs and canyons are nestled these small towns with Soviet-style apartments (low high rises), warehouses, dilapidated businesses, towers, bridges, and dirt roads.  It looks like another planet.  The city of Murmansk is along the coast, and was indeed used for the urban scenes.
In one scene, the corrupt mayor (Roman Madyanov), quite fat, talks to the aggressive handsome Moscow lawyer (Vladimir Vdovichenko), who is trying to expose the major and threatens him. Behind the mayor, who even puts off being served afternoon tea, is a picture of Putin. 

The story centers around the unexplained campaign or vendetta by the mayor against local auto repair shop owner Nikolay (Aleksy Serebryakov), his wife (Elena Lyadova) and almost charismatic teen soon Romka (Sergey Pohkadaev) from a previous marriage.  The mayor uses eminent domain, paying almost nothing, for the right to demolish the home and business in a picturesque location for development  When Nikolay resists and brings the attorney into the picture, the mayor turns him into a modern day Job, eventually framing him for his wife’s convenient murder.
The role of the Russian Orthodox church (so exploited by Putin in the anti-gay campaign) is clear.  The priest condemns Nikolay for not fasting and praying enough, and in a funeral at the end (as winter comes) says that personal freedom is in antipathy to morality.  “All power is from God” and from Putin. Life is not to be about personal desires.  I thought, Putin wants “large families” to repopulate this barren, ruined land (although there is a lot of oil and minerals in the area).  The scene where the house is demolished is quite overpowering.  The title of the film comes from a whale skeleton found on the beach by the boy.

The film, up for best foreign language film, is distributed in the US by Sony Pictures Classics, and it’s surprising it is in only one theater, harder to reach than most by subway and with only street parking. (It's a 15-minute winter walk, along the street above, from the Metro.)  Sony is to be commended by continuing to release films that slam modern authoritarian governments, even given “The Interview”.  Curiously, in the script, the term “roadside attractions” occurs (the name of another major indie distributor).

The official site is here (Sony and Palace Films). 

Neil MacFarquhar has a front page account of how the film has been received in Russia.  That is to say, negatively, and believed to be libelous, and making rural Russian people look bad.  Putin really intends to repopulate this motherland? 
Wikipedia attribution link for scene (first picture) in Teriberka (on the Arctic coast), where the whale skeleton was located, here  (wiki author "Blair175", Creative Commons Share-Alike 4.0 international). The Wikipedia image used here (with permission) is almost identical to a shot in the film.  

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